Television: Belvedere, Ballymaloe and Brian Cowen’s hard-neck life

Documentaries on boys’ schools and a cookery school, and an examination of a former taoiseach

Bursary boy: David Zaworski featured in ‘The Scholarship’, which hit a perfect observational balance

Bursary boy: David Zaworski featured in ‘The Scholarship’, which hit a perfect observational balance


Many private schools offer scholarships. Most are based on academic or musical excellence, but Belvedere College, the all-boys Jesuit school in Dublin, looks beyond schoolwork to social, economic and educational disadvantage and to parental motivation when it chooses its annual recipients. There are very personal forms to fill out, home visits and interviews with parents and child. Parents with money, however, have only to write a cheque.

The Scholarship (RTÉ One, Monday), a two-part observational documentary, followed the process in 2011; maybe it was because The X Factor is back – sobbing, a tragic backstory, rubbish talk of life-changing journeys – but I tuned in fearing the worst. I was wrong. The film – its director, Kim Bartley, was heard occasionally off camera – hit a perfect observational balance between warmth for the participants and cool pragmatism.

This was helped by the apparent integrity of the scholarship-awards process and by the film not getting involved in the cul de sac of a debate about the existence of private schools. The parents were candid about their own educational shortcomings, their desire to get the best for their children and their pragmatic belief that Belvedere was the key. The five boys interviewed were articulate, impressive and hopeful.

The school, which bravely allowed the cameras into the lengthy meetings at which teachers assessed the applicants, was equally honest and pragmatic, noting that a Traveller candidate would need strong shoulders to carry the flag of being the first from his background at the school, and a Polish applicant might not integrate because the school had experience of eastern Europeans keeping to themselves.

The applicants proved too difficult to whittle down from the shortlist of 17, so the eight golden tickets were picked out of a hat. Next week we’ll see if any of the boys filmed made it. They wanted it so much, I hope they did.

Belvedere costs about €5,000 a year, which is small change to the chaps in Harrow: A Very British School (Sky1, Wednesday). That school’s annual fees are €36,000, and a top hat and straw boater are part of the uniform. The documentary series, which follows a handful of first-year boys over a year, was predictable: the wealth; the elitist bubble the boys live in; the whiff of privilege from every surface; the archaic rules. But it’s pacy and not as reverential in tone as other British documentaries about their ancient institutions. One episode is probably enough, though; nothing much is going to change at Harrow, which is the whole point, and the programme was already getting repetitive by the end of the hour.

If there hasn’t been a documentary before – and I can’t remember one – on the life, drive and amazing vision of Myrtle Allen, the question is why, with so many other food programmes clogging up the schedule. The many contributers and archive footage in Myrtle Allen: A Life in Food (RTE One, Tuesday) showed what a force of nature she has been since she set up Ballymaloe House and changed the image of Irish food at home and abroad. This documentary was a good start, and it worked because Allen, at a sprightly 89, was such a presence in it, as she clearly still is in the business she established.

In 1964, when she was 40, her six children were at boarding school. Looking for something to do, Allen started a restaurant in their rather grand farmhouse. The food scene at that time was shown, hilariously, with clips from Cathal O’Shannon’s 1971 film Cork’s Glorious Food, which pointed out how horrible Irish food was, how dire its international reputation was, and how pretentious the few “good restaurants” were with their French menus and notions.

Allen is a self-taught cook – she couldn’t scramble an egg when she got married – but by the time she established her restaurant she had a clear concept. Her menu was devised on the day, depending on seasonal, local ingredients, and she itemised the source of the products. As a restaurateur she was a visionary.

Many contributors – too many, saying the same thing – talked about her influence on young chefs, her support for artisan producers and, at EU level, her lobbying against the industrialisation of food production. They all called her Mrs Allen – even her daughter-in-law Darina and her grandson’s wife Rachel – although the roguish chef Richard Corrigan called her Myrtle and told entertaining stories about the spats they’ve had.

It would have been good to have had more about food and the years between the founding of Ballymaloe and the present day. The plinky-plonky piano soundtrack also had the unfortunate effect of making parts of the film feel like a corporate video.

Máirtín Tom Sheáinín (Comhrá, TG4, Thursday) got the scoop: the first full interview with former taoiseach Brian Cowen since he left public life. The pair sat facing each other in the brightly lit studio that’s meant to look like a country cottage, and Cowen got to answer the questions we recession-riddled citizens have been dying to ask since he steered the country on to the rocks and then retreated home with his huge pension.

So, yes, his granny had a thatched pub, his late father’s nickname, Ber, was short for Bernard – who’d have thought? – and they had a slaughter house out the back when he was “ladín beag”. That was hardly strange, seeing as his father was a butcher.

It was all slightly surreal, like a spoof chat show you’d see on TV in Fr Ted’s living room. It was conducted as Gaeilge, a language few people understand fluently, on a programme with a tiny viewership – but Cowen can say truthfully that he has given an interview on national television.

They eventually got off the Cowen family tree; you would think he’d be animated and maybe even charming, being let wander off on such safe territory, but his lack of charisma was once again laid bare. The subtitled talk turned to politics: he still stands over the bank guarantee of September 2008, didn’t believe those who warned the economy was in danger of collapsing, and had no plan B when it did.

Throughout the interview – the style of Comhrá is informal chat – he wedged himself awkwardly into the corner of the chair, his body scrunched up in an odd way, so that you’d couldn’t see his neck. But his choice of programme and interviewer showed it was there, hard as ever.

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